Expensive Advice

December 31st, 2011 by Potato

There is some truly bad advice out there on the internet, some of which can be expensive. I see a lot of it in the fall as pertains to the seemingly mandatory “list of things to do to your car to get ready for winter” articles pop up. One particularly egregious example encouraged people to rotate their tires (but not change-over to winters), change their coolant every year (most cars only need a change every other year, and many newer cars have formulations that last 5 or more years, and a coolant flush isn’t all that cheap), add fuel line antifreeze with every fill-up (winter gas eliminates this need, and when have you ever heard of someone getting a gas line freeze-up in the last 10 years?), and get an oil change and inspection.

I put up my winter driving prep list last year, and as expected the number one tip was get winter tires. I should have bolded it then, too. The up-front cost is a little high (few hundred dollars, either for a dedicated separate set, or the incremental cost over all-seasons to get winter-rated all-weathers), but well worth it in terms of safety, and also saving some wear on your summer set of tires and rims. You can even get a discount on your insurance from many providers.

Then along comes Marianne, who earlier in the fall was on a tight budget, and somehow prioritized rustproofing, an inspection, detailing, and winter mats over a safety feature like winter tires (and don’t get me started on other things she decided were better uses of her money than snow tires). She complained of the cost, and of only using them for 4 months (though Nov, Dec, Jan, Feb, Mar seems to be 5 months to me, and possibly 6 if you do your driving at night and it’s chilly through half of October and April — and fully half the mileage if you do more trips by bike in the summer).

That attitude may have changed as she now relates to us a harrowing tale of a near-miss spin-out on snow-covered roads over the holidays.

I will say it again: I know people with all-season tires who don’t think the cost of winter tires is worth it, and people with winter tires who think it is worth it, but no one with winter tires who thinks it’s not worth the cost. They give you such a large margin-of-safety on cold and slippery roads, it is easily worth the few hundred bucks.

The other things on these perpetual winter driving lists are good, but can be expensive advice. Winter tires should be the #1 point on all those lists, and despite the up-front cost, are the least expensive advice there is. I won’t come out and say that regular inspections are a bad idea, but if there’s nothing suspicious happening with your car, the money is better spent elsewhere. For a car that’s driven regularly in most of the populated regions of the country, a gas antifreeze additive is a waste of money. Coolant is good for a few years; if you need to, you can push it a little bit (and it’s much cheaper to get tested than indiscriminately replaced). Rustproofing has its advocates, but if expenses have to be prioritized and deferred, it can be put off until the spring, or even for a few years. And as much as I love rubber winter mats — I leave ’em in all year long — no one ever died of salt stains on their carpet.

Prius Undercarriage Follow-Up

October 17th, 2011 by Potato

I had the under-engine cover replaced today. It went well: though the US TSB I found didn’t apply in Canada, they did have the newly revised part in stock anyway, and replaced the cover under warranty.

The new part still doesn’t have a proper hinge, but the bit of brittle plastic that bends is a little more sensibly designed:

The new under-engine cover, focused on the hinge, which now has a bit of a roll to it.

Since we were taking the cover off anyway, I decided to do my next oil change, etc, a little sooner than necessary. The weather is just barely below 15°C these days, but I do much of my driving at night, so I also had them put the winter tires on. A somewhat unexpectedly expensive step was getting the transaxle oil changed. Oddly enough, there is no recommended change interval: just an “inspect and replace as necessary” guideline in the maintenance schedule. Except there’s really no way to do that: there’s no dipstick, so you have to open the drain plug anyway, and no real way to cheaply test the viscosity or for contaminants. Some of the car geeks have been doing that analysis to try to come up with our own user-generated set of change interval guidelines, and the initial evidence is that the first change should be made pretty early on (about 2 years in, so pretty much where my Prius is now). I didn’t bother to try to save any of my transaxle oil for analysis, but it was discoloured relative to new oil. I’ll probably plan for the next change at about 120,000 km, though I’ll be watching the high-mileage geeks for hints ;)

The service guys were pretty good, and let me poke around under the car while they had it up on the jack. Unfortunately, it looks like there’s a little bit of rust starting in places (a few bolts, and on a spot by the exhaust system, pictured below). For a car in Canada, a few little spots of rust is nothing, but it has only gone through one and a half winters, so that’s a little more than I wanted to see this soon. This particular part of the exhaust, around the heat exchanger (unique to the Gen 3 Prius AFAIK) is a bit of a hotspot for rust, and he hypothesizes that there’s a chance that may be a recall item in a few more years.

I’m going to look into perhaps rustproofing: I used Krown oil spray on the old Accord, and I think it did the job, but I’ve been hesitant with the Prius since it is a bit different. The tech at the dealership said it wouldn’t help there, since the exhaust system will get hot and burn off an oil spray — it’ll just stink it up for a while is all. I don’t recall that happening with the Accord though. Instead, he recommended a tar-like coating, which I’ve always been a little leery of vs. the oil spray technique. Anyway, something to think about.

Some rust starting to appear on the exhaust system on a 2-year-old car.

Though I didn’t like the look of the rust on the bits that had it, I was a little amazed at how clean most of the underside of the car was. Granted, my last car was 14 years old when I finally got rid of it, and though it wasn’t structurally unsound, there was not a single part underneath that didn’t have at least some rust veneer.

One other potential issue they pointed out was that a small ridge was developing on one of the brake rotors. I don’t know how serious that really is — as long as the pad conforms, and it’s radially symmetric, it should still function as a brake, right? — but he told me to watch for any signs of shaking while braking, etc. The brakes themselves still have a tonne of life left on them: that’s as expected since much of the braking is regenerative, not friction, but still nice to have confirmed.

Prius Trouble: Undercarriage

October 3rd, 2011 by Potato

The Prius has been a terrific car for me, giving me almost zero trouble since buying it (only needs oil changes twice a year, and only one rattly panel as a manufacturing defect).

That is, until this weekend. On the trip up to the cottage I heard a strange whooshing noise, kind of like a window being open a crack: a non-specific change in the way the airflow around the car sounded. Then it stopped. When we got to the cottage I found out what the source of the mystery noise was: the oil access door had broken and been grinding against the road.

For those that aren’t intimately familiar with Prius anatomy, the underside is covered in plastic panels that help improve the airflow under the car, which in turn improves fuel economy (and there is a debate as to whether it helps keep out or trap wintertime salt, which may improve/hurt the long-term life of the underbody in the Canadian climate). It also helps insulate road noise (making the car as awesomely quiet as it is) and also importantly in northern climates, helps to insulate the engine compartment (retain heat). But, as you can imagine, you can’t work on an engine that’s hidden by panels, so there’s a small access door to open for oil changes. This has a very rudimentary hinge in the plastic: just a creased spot in the plastic panel where it bends. It’s then held on by a few (3?) plastic fasteners. If you’re familiar with this type of plastic hinge (in cheap plastic storage boxes perhaps) then you’ll know they have a nasty habit of shearing, and the cheap plastic fasteners aren’t of much help if the hinge gives way. It’s a real falling-down point on the Prius design (the whole panel should be removable, not on a hinge, or the hinge should be stronger/more flexible).

When I looked under the car, that door was held on by just one of the plastic fasteners, and the plastic had been ground away by contact with the road so the door was now some 2-3″ shorter. It was a bit of an adventure to get that last fastener off so I could drive the car. Here’s our improvised cottage jack to get the car up high enough for me to reach under, and then a picture of the hanging access panel itself. It’ll have to be replaced, and since the door hinges on to the larger piece, likely the whole larger piece will have to be replaced. Ugh.

I can’t say for sure at this point if this is a defect under warranty or not, but I think it should be. I’ll keep you posted when I finally get my butt into a dealership to figure it out, but it does sound like it’s already a common problem (on a model that’s less than 3 years old) and likely only to become more commonplace. Some DIY fixes have been proposed over at PriusChat. I’ve found a TSB for the US that indicates this part has been redesigned. I can’t find any information on whether this applies to Canadian owners.

Tater’s Takes – A Competing Religion

July 30th, 2011 by Potato

Was just at Canadian Tire and saw all the back-to-school stuff out for sale, and realized that this is the first time I won’t be going back to school in September! :(

A member of the Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster — a competing “fake” religion to the true quasi-religion of Potatoism — has won the right to wear a holy collander in his ID photos.

Some Prius owners sell their used cars for a profit, hopefully putting to rest for good the belief that hybrids are somehow doomed to face higher depreciation.

Michael James comments on cap-weighting vs. fundamental weighting. I wonder not only if fundamental indexing can provide enough return to cover the costs, but also if they’re not trading one problem for another. One example of the problems with cap weighting is that when you get big bubbly stocks like Nortel back in the day, those stocks end up taking up huge proportions of a cap-weighted index, and the more over-valued those companies get, the bigger their share in the index! But that problem of lack of diversification doesn’t seem to be fixed by fundamental weighting from a 1-minute look at the two indexes: instead of having giant stocks, now we have giant sectors, with the fundamental index putting a 45% weight on financials, when the cap-weighted index was already a pretty hefty 30%.

Scott Adams puts out some quasi-serious ways for the US to get out of its budget crisis. For the carpool lane one, that’s actually a pretty good idea. Thanks to an experiment with hybrid cars, we know that being able to travel solo in carpool lanes is actually a valuable feature some people are willing to pay money for. You see, at one point LA (among other cities) gave a special sticker to hybrids to allow them to use the carpool lanes, as an incentive to get people to drive cleaner cars. Then, the quota for that program was hit and they stopped giving out the stickers. But the stickers were good for a few years and most importantly transferable, so what you saw happen is that cars with HOV stickers went for a premium over comparable cars — a few thousand dollars, perhaps as much as $4k. And that’s just for a few years of HOV access. So maybe there’s a group of people out there willing to pay on the neighbourhood of $1k/year to get solo HOV access, let’s ballpark it at 1% of a metro area’s population. Across a few major cities, that could hit a billion in tax revenue. Yes, a drop in the bucket for the problems facing the US budget, but a start. [And also, perhaps at the wrong level of government]

One of the Ford annoyances in Toronto commented on closing libraries, saying “And my constituents, it wouldn’t bother them because they have another library two miles one way and two miles the other way.” I’m all for eliminating waste in the city budget, but I’ve got a soft spot for libraries (and not only because Wayfare’s a librarian). Being no more than “two miles” (3.2 km) is about right — his ward is only about 6 km across, so assuming there are at least two libraries in it, that’s not far off. But 3 km is a long way to be from a library. Remember that the biggest users of libraries are not driving: the poor, the young, and I guess the cheap. Toronto has 99 libraries. Is that too many? It’s tough to say, but Toronto has 625 elementary schools (public, catholic, french catholic — not counting other private ones) and 135 high schools. Approximately one library branch per high school sounds about right to me. I’ll also just quickly say that the branches are more than just a place to check out books, so they are important to maintain, and maintain throughout the city.

I heard again recently the bit of reassuring spin from CMHC that they’re totally cool because the average equity of their mortgage portfolio is 45%. And note that that includes equity gained by price appreciation. To me, that average is nearly meaningless because it doesn’t break it down regionally, or bin it by equity. The defaults occur at the margin, and if the distribution of equity/LTV is large, then there will be plenty of people put underwater by even a modest correction that trouble will follow. Just for a point of comparison I tried to look up what a similar figure from the US would have been and found that in 2007, Fannie Mae’s average equity of the mortgage portfolio was 41%. That does not make me feel reassured that things are that much better here in the great white north, land of the conservative banks. I’d do a post on the “Canadian Moral Hazard Corporation” except it’s been done (with that exact title in several places). Maybe I’ll dig into Genworth later in the summer if I find some time (that one I can at least short if it comes up particularly spotty).

“Environment Canada now even has media officers in Ottawa tape-recording the interviews scientists are allowed to give.” Oh! I think I found where we can cut back on the budget!

Corning reported results and it was pretty much what I expected: display glass is facing troubles, but the company is expanding its other business lines to (partially) compensate. Given the price it looks like the display issues may be priced in, and allow for some upside if/when the other business lines grow enough to be meaningful. Still no position, but with it under $16 I’m becoming more interested, and have put in a bid at $15; let’s see what happens.

Cool random thing I learned: Saturn has two moons that share an orbit: Janus and Epimetheus.

A Year with the Prius

February 24th, 2011 by Potato

I just had my one-year oil change and service done on my Prius. My “early graduation present to myself” has proven to be comically early as I’m still not done my PhD. That aside, I think the research paid off and the Prius was a wise choice: it fits my stuff, it’s fun to drive, and it’s fuel efficient. How efficient? I averaged 5.06 L/100 km over the last year, including a lot of short winter trips (curling FTL). My best tank was 3.85 L/100 km (a summer-time trip up to the cottage, usually when I get my best fuel economy), my worst 6.19 L/100 km, a tank including a bunch of short trips around London (curling, shopping) in the middle of winter, a few hundred kilometers on the 401, and another hundred kilometers in Toronto traffic. Not only is the fuel consumption good, in real-world terms, it’s also very consistent. For comparison, on the Accord my worst tank was 14.5 L/100 km, and my best was 6.5 L/100 km… and that’s without ever having to deal with Toronto commuting. I did put on a lot fewer kilometers than I had planned/expected, figuring I’d be up somewhere around 16-20k, but came in at just 13k.

Mechanically, I’ve had zero problems with the car. The low rearview mirror still bothers me a little bit, and there are a few more scratches in the paint, which does seem thin, but otherwise no issues. The seat fabric has weathered a live-fire vomit test, so I don’t think I’ll bother getting seat covers or aftermarket leather. I also got to test out the brake assist feature when someone decided that they were going to make a left turn, no matter what the oncoming traffic thought of their green light. The car stops fast.

Right now I’m debating whether or not to get a Krown treatment for it — of course there’s no rust on the car itself, but the lug nuts on my winter wheels are rusting, which seems really weird (and I’ve been checking out other people’s wheels for the last few weeks and don’t notice that on anyone else’s car, so I wonder if I somehow got defective nuts). I’m leaning towards putting it off until I get a real job.

I’ve had a few people ask about magnetic field exposures. I keep meaning to grab a probe and measure it, maybe this spring when the weather gets nice. In the meantime, another group has published on the issue, and I updated the Wikipedia entry appropriately — which lead to a little edit war with an anonymous scare-monger. Fun times. Do you have any lingering hybrid questions, or have they been comprehensively answered over the years here?